Too much of a good thing: arguments against a second referendum

6 Dec

The demand for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit seems to be gathering force. The recent by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats’ in the hitherto Tory safe seat of Richmond was widely seen as a mini-referendum on Brexit. Former Tory Prime Minister John Major has waded into the debate, with his claims that while the popular verdict on the EU should be respected, a second referendum is nonetheless justified. Even Simon Jenkins, one of the few major commentators that managed to retain his composure in the aftermath of the June referendum, has given qualified support to the idea of a second referendum. In light of the continued prevarication over Brexit, it is worth revisiting some of our broad arguments regarding referendums and representative democracy. The Brexit effect continues to reverberate through British politics: those who sneered at referendums as rabble-rousing now earnestly make the case for a second referendum – thereby risking institutionalising the referendum as a mode of governance in Brexit Britain.

It is not difficult to discern arguments for having a second referendum, not least the fact that the precedent has now been established. The terms on which Britain leaves the European Union (EU) are clearly important for the country – in terms of movement of peoples, border control, long-term trade opportunities and patterns of economic growth. If the question of membership of the EU merited consulting the public, why should the terms on which we leave the EU not merit a similar level of democratic legitimation and public engagement? It is also worth noting that debates on a second referendum cut across the ongoing tussle in the Supreme Court over managing Brexit, such as the timing and modalities of invoking Article 50. After all, regardless of when Prime Minister May triggers Article 50 and whether or not she does it with a parliamentary vote, she could still call a referendum on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels at the end of the two-year negotiating period that would follow the invocation of Article 50. In light of all this, it is worth recalling what the best arguments for holding the Brexit referendum were in the first place, and considering how they stack up against the arguments for a second referendum.

On TCM we have sought to make the political case for representative democracy – against the inter-twined threats of technocratic subversion on the one hand, and the phony politicisation of populism on the other. Despite the fact that referendums justly have a reputation as the tool of direct democracy and populist authoritarianism, and whatever David Cameron’s personal motivations for calling the referendum, I supported a referendum on Brexit. More than this, I reckoned it to be the single most important political question put before the British electorate over the last three decades. There were several reasons for holding this view.

First, approaching the referendum entailed reckoning with the parlous state of representative democracy in Britain itself. That is to say: declining rates of public engagement and political participation whether measured by compression of the ideological spectrum, declining interest in politics, collapsing membership of political parties and the long term decline in voting in general elections. With the structures of representative democracy having been so rotted through prior to the referendum, it is reasonable to supplement the process of political decision-making with direct public engagement.

Important as such factors are, these were nonetheless secondary considerations. More important was the fact that it was the nature of democracy itself that was at issue in the referendum. Should legislation be crafted and debated by elected representatives, or channelled via the executive’s prerogative over foreign policy into Brussels, to then be funnelled back to national capitals and then be rubber-stamped by national parliaments? This hollowing out of the democratic process that took place under the aegis of the EU was the strongest reason to ensure that the electorate was given a voice over membership of the Union itself. Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum energised democracy. With the Brexit vote, the possibility of restoring representative liberal democracy at the nation-state level exists. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, political elites have been put on notice by the referendum as to the fact that they can be held to account, even through the limited formal representative structures offered by the British state. Evading popular accountability has become more politically difficult since the referendum.

Yet there are also good reasons to be wary of repeat referendums. A direct national vote on the character of national democracy is a different kind of political decision than a direct national vote on the outcome of negotiations overseen by elected representatives: the latter clearly slides into plebiscitarianism. Instead of escalating plebiscitiarian rule, British political parties should take advantage of their post-Brexit boost in membership and public political engagement to rebuild democratic contestation at the national level. Doubtless opportunistic Remainers will rally behind the call for a second referendum of whatever complexion, in the hope of throwing anything they can in the way of Brexit. Yet Remainers’ criticisms of the political degradation resulting from Brexit risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which they will be complicit: if plebiscitarianism is embedded in the functioning of the British state, then a democratic shot in the arm may end up becoming a debilitating drug.

Philip Cunliffe

Trumped: The Nadir of US Representative Democracy

17 Nov

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should. Unfortunately, too many have been quick to reach for a familiar and self-serving excuse: blame the electorate. In 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected, the Daily Mirror spoke for many in asking how 59,054,087 people could ‘be so dumb’. This time around, voters are not only being derided as ‘stupid’, but also misogynist – because they rejected a highly-qualified female candidate for a nasty, self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and also racist – since voters backed Trump either because, or in total disregard of, his intensely racist and nativist campaign rhetoric and policy pledges. But, while sexists and racists doubtless supported Trump, this does not explain how he was able to win the election. Indeed, the ‘whitelash thesis’ only distracts attention from the actual cause of his victory: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

In brief, the ‘whitelash’ thesis is that white, middle-class and especially male voters reacted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, drawn to Trump’s racialized promise to ‘take their country back’. The thesis draws on facts like the following. 67% of white men backed Trump. His supporters prioritised the (racialized) issues of immigration and terrorism over the economy. Trump voters were not the poorest, earning under $50,000 per year (they voted mostly for Clinton); they are the middle-income workers (who in the US are generally referred to as ‘middle class’), who care more about affirmative action allowing minorities to steal jobs from whites than they care about trade offshoring jobs. So they voted Trump not out of real economic plight, but because they feel their white privilege slipping away to non-whites and, for men, to women. They felt that ‘eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough’, blaming their economic grievances on a black president instead of Ronald Reagan, whose policies actually started the rot. And they voted ‘against an economy they believed was giving women a step up’. The most subtle versions of the thesis admit that not all voters may have been motivated by such concerns, but they nonetheless ‘gave force’ to these retrograde views by endorsing Trump.

No doubt this ugly portrait describes a certain hard-core minority of American voters. Nonetheless, there is no way that this thesis can account for Trump’s victory.

The simple reason is that there was no surge for Trump, even among the white working class; on the contrary, support for the Republicans fell – it just fell much more for the Democrats. In fact, the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election is the radical disengagement of vast numbers of citizens from the democratic process.

This is obvious merely from turnout data, which is being scrupulously analysed on Facebook by Kole Kilibarda. As he puts it: in 2012, the two major parties got about 125m of 130m votes cast, while 90m eligible voters did not vote; in 2016, they got 122.5m of 130m votes cast, while 100m eligible voters (higher due to population growth) abstained.

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White voters did not support Trump significantly more than Mitt Romney in 2012: there was only a 1% swing, to 58% for Trump/37% for Clinton. That is, disproportionate white support for Republican presidential candidates is a longstanding fact (going back to Lyndon Johnson’s repudiation of the ‘Dixiecrats’), and did not substantially change in 2016. Evidence from the five ‘rust belt’ states that fell unexpectedly to Trump shows that he only picked up about 300,000 white working class votes. This makes it hard to sustain the idea of a whitelash against Obama.

Indeed, overall, Trump not only got fewer votes than Clinton but also about 400,000 fewer than Romney. He was not a popular candidate whose ideas and rhetoric enthused most Americans. He won just 47.2% of the vote, or 21.6% of the eligible electorate. Many who did vote for Trump did not like him: 57% of whites thought him untrustworthy; a quarter said he was unqualified and lacked the right temperament; and only 42% of his supporters ‘strongly favoured’ him, while 61% of citizens had an unfavourable view of Trump. Many Trump voters also disagreed with key policy positions like deporting illegal immigrants. Trump did not boost his vote with his ‘whitelash’ trash-talk – he didn’t even hold up the Republican vote from 2012. At best, he managed to rally the traditional Republican base – and little more than that.

So the question is not so much why Trump won, but why Clinton lost to such a poor opponent. The fact is that while the Republican vote declined, the Democrat vote collapsed. It fell from 69.5m in 2008 and 65.9m in 2012 to just 61.3m, despite the electorate increasing by over 18m over this period. Turnout was especially bad in states that Clinton lost. Kilibarda’s analysis of the Rustbelt-5 shows that while Trump picked up 300,000 working-class votes, Clinton lost 1.5m as voters either went for third-parties (about 500,000) or abstained. As Kilibarda puts it: ‘Trump did not “flip” these states as much as the Democrats lost them.’ Problematically for the whitelash thesis, Clinton’s collapse was worst among minority voters: compared to Obama in 2012, she was down 8 points among African-Americans and Latinos, and 11 down among Asians. Accordingly, 8% of blacks, 29% of Latinos, 29% of Asians and 37% of ‘other’ minorities voted Republican. This was particularly devastating because demographic change was supposed to work against Trump, with the white share of the electorate declining from 72% to 70% from 2012-16.

So the truth is that white and minority voters abandoned the Democrats en masse; but white voters did not rush for Trump. Far from being the gullible fools of much liberal commentary, somehow believing that the oligarchic Trump was their saviour, they refused to vote for either party, backing third candidates or simply abstaining. Indeed, the 100m citizens who did not vote are the crucial force in this election, dwarfing the voters supporting either main party. Put simply, Trump could not even maintain Republican support levels from 2012, winning thanks only to 107,000 votes in just swing three states. If Clinton had been able to mobilise just 1% of the non-voting population in key states, Trump would have lost.

Her failure to do so cannot be understood independently of racism or sexism. It is true that local laws requiring voters to show photo ID tend to affect (or indeed target) minorities more than whites, which one study suggests depresses Democrat votes more than Republican ones. We will not know their true effect until turnout data is clearer. It is also true that Clinton was down 5 points with men, including Democratic men, while gaining only 1% among women on 2012, and her big collapse among black voters was with men, not women – providing stronger support for a sexism thesis than a racism one, particularly when we consider how many voters had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, race also intersects here: as one commentator puts it, if white working class women had split 50/50 instead of 62/34 for Trump, Clinton would have won.

Nonetheless, invoking these factors as a primary explanation implicitly assumes that Clinton’s platform was good, especially relative to Trump’s, and so a lack of support can only be attributed to malign forces and motives. But actually, many people did not feel her platform was good. No more voters felt enthused by a Clinton presidency than a Trump one – just 4 in 10 for each. 44% of eligible voters viewed her unfavourably. Obama at least offered ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with big ideas on healthcare and the like – though his failure to deliver much arguably explains his waning support in 2012. But Clinton was a pale imitation. She is the quintessential establishment candidate; her sole claim to ‘change’ was to be America’s first woman president.

This may have put off some male voters, as stated above – but it clearly failed to enthuse women, too, given their tiny 1% swing towards Clinton. Some commentators have been quick to blame ‘internalised misogyny’ or female ‘sexism’, especially among whites. But perhaps – just perhaps! – women wanted a bit more and so refused, in Susan Sarandon’s words, to ‘vote with their vaginas’. They stand condemned because they refused to obey the diktat of neoliberal identity politics, preferring instead to vote on other issues.

The same goes for the so-called ‘middle class’ – not the poorest citizens, who are kept afloat by Democrat policies and vote accordingly, but middling workers who, despite working hard, are experiencing declining living standards and feel pessimistic about the future (a parallel here to Brexit). Certainly, some of their grievances may take a racialized form as they blame immigrants or minorities. But what alternative form did Clinton suggest that it take? Unlike Bernie Sanders, who promoted an explicitly class-based framework, it is impossible to say what Clinton offered these people, because she barely addressed their concerns. Clinton has been a leading figure in an increasingly technocratic political class that, since the 1980s, has largely ignored working people, abandoning them to the mercies of the free market, neoliberal trade deals, and stagnating real wages, while cosying up to Wall Street and billionaire donors. ‘Middle-class’ voters would be foolish to believe that Trump would do much differently, but nor can they reasonably have much faith that Clinton will depart from form. Her elitist disdain for Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’ simply compounded her enormous distance from ordinary voters.

The 2016 US presidential election, then, is a sad story of the hollowing out of America’s representative democracy. The rot was halted temporarily by Obama’s promise of hope and change, but resumed quickly enough. The so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ could not generate a single serious candidate to rival a perma-tanned reality TV star, and even this wild populist could not maintain – let alone increase – Republican support. And the best the Democrat establishment could field was someone loathed by much of the electorate. A hundred million Americans felt so divorced from the political process, so unrepresented by either political party, that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. The result is a president that only a small minority of American voters actually wanted.

Of course, it may still be objected that it is all very well for white workers to abstain; thanks to their ‘white privilege’ they won’t bear the brunt of Trump’s nasty policies. While those pushing this line still struggle to explain (i.e. conveniently ignore) the millions of non-white voters supporting Trump, the more important response is this: in a democracy, a settlement that serves the interests of minorities cannot be created without simultaneously appealing to the interests of the majority. For this reason, fragmented identity politics won’t do. An inclusive socialist platform, capable of appealing to workers of all sexes and ethnicities, remains essential.

Lee Jones

Don’t Vote Strategically

8 Nov

This has easily been the most substance free election in recent American history. It is also one that has generated a huge amount of emotion. Precisely because the central theme of the election has been personality and temperament, not policy and ideology, everyone has taken the election personally. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the daily inquisitions that pass as attempts to convince individuals to vote. Anyone who refuses to vote, or plans to vote for a third party candidate, is attacked as an irresponsible fantasist who cares more about the beauty of his soul than the hard political realities of this election. The vote shouldn’t be expressive, it should be practical, they say. When those on the Left argue that Lesser Evilism only means that the Left, such as it is, will be taken for granted or safely ignored, a standard liberal response is that those Lefties will be responsible for Trump winning. Actually, the standard response is considerably more abusive and moralistic. But whether delivered in a hostile or friendly tone, the essence of the case for Hillary has simply been that: each individual must vote strategically, rather than for what he or she believes in, because otherwise that person is responsible for Trump. But that is not only wrong it’s a fantasy, and an undemocratic fantasy at that.

In an era of Vox-style data-driven journalism, in which social policy is tortured by the nudge and tweaks of the latest social science, it is notable that liberals leave the same style of thinking at home when it comes to voting. After all, it is political scientists who have been telling us for decades that individuals make no causal difference to the outcome of large-scale collective actions like national elections. These are the same experts that liberal technocrats want us to defer to for the two and four years between major elections, but whose most long-standing social scientific thesis is suddenly irrelevant during these elections. But it is during elections that they really have a point. After all, it is true that no individual’s vote is decisive in an election. Run the probabilities however you like, but you, individual voter, have a better chance of winning the lottery everyday for months than you do of determining the outcome of the election. That’s just as true in a swing state as it is in a safe state. Even in Florida, North Carolina or Nevada, the chance is effectively zero that one of the candidates will win by one vote.

This is not a counsel of despair. This is, for one, how it should be in a democracy. Everybody counts equally, so nobody should have that kind of control over outcomes. Nobody’s individual will should so heroically determine our collective fate; it is pathological to think otherwise. But more than that, this should be a liberating thought. You or I do not carry the fate of the republic on our shoulders. We do not determine the fate of the election in that way. There is no good reason to harangue someone for being irresponsible when he or she votes on principle rather than pragmatically.

So one of the deepest ironies of this election has been that the people – especially liberal commentators – who claim to be reasoning in the most hard-headed, reality-facing, pragmatic way are, in fact, the ones in the grip of an illusion. I suspect that, for some, this is not so much an illusion as it is bad faith. They personally don’t actually believe that Hillary is Lesser Evil. Instead, they believe she is the good option, close to the best that America can do. They deploy the Lesser Evil argument to try and convince those to their left who think she is a neoliberal warmonger who will only entrench the racial and class divisions of this society. But many Lesser Evilists really do think it is the ‘Responsible Thing To Do.’ That they must think about their vote as if it were decisive. Not only is that a deep distortion of the reality of the situation, it is its own form of expressive voting dressed up as pragmatic thinking. Their vote becomes a signaling device for what it means to be a serious person and, by the same token, serves as moral permission to rant at others.

The problem here is not just that the Lesser Evilists peddle an illusion, it is that this illusion serves deeply undemocratic ends. The other side of blaming individual voters for outcomes is relieving candidates of the responsibility for making their case to those citizens. The political role of the strategic voting argument is to paper over the weakness of democratic representation in this country. While that is a long-standing trend in the United States and, as we have discussed on this blog, in other countries, this particular election has brought to the fore just how limited the attempt to organize and represent interests is. Trump is a vile demagogue who shows little interest in the art of governing, while Clinton has made her campaign almost entirely about the clash of personalities rather than their ideas. It is always at the moments when dissenters criticize Clinton’s views or record that the Lesser Evil argument gets trotted out. Yes yes, we are told, she might be nowhere near the kind of progressive candidate we would like, but if you don’t vote for her you are responsible for putting Him in office. Never mind that the positive case for her is weak, the argument goes, we can’t afford to think about that.

So the strategic voting argument does more than ignore the fact that individual voters are not responsible for the outcome. It also reverses the relationship of political responsibility. It holds individuals responsible for outcomes, while alleviating candidates of responsibility for proving themselves. But, in a democracy, it is the candidates who are responsible for making their case to the people, not the other way around. Citizens are responsible for deciding on their own principles and holding representatives to them. But the more disconnected representatives are from the public, the more they try to conceal that fact by turning the tables and holding voters responsible for outcomes that voters cannot personally control. On top of which, by lowering the standards to which they are held to (“at least she’s not the other guy”), the election is turned into something like a blanket grant of authority. That bar is so low it is achieved simply by winning the election, which makes it all the harder to hold the winner to account during the period of actual governing. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. If they haven’t made their case, we have no responsibility to vote for them.

Alex Gourevitch

The Myth of Bregret

7 Nov

One of the reasons invoked to support calls for a second EU referendum is that the vote would inevitably go the other way, because people have changed their minds. In the polite version, this is because they will have new information on hand about the real costs of Brexit, such as the decline in sterling. In the less polite version, this is because the people were stupid enough to be fooled by a pack of lies from the Leave campaign. In reality, this regret over Brexit – ‘Bregret’ – is more imagined than real.

This myth has been circulating since 24 June. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Remainer media outlets scrambled to find individual Brexit voters who were shocked or upset by the outcome, saying they had only wanted to lodge a protest vote. Despite the fact that only a handful of people were willing to say this on camera, Remainers sought to present them as widely representative. Similarly, stories circulated that many people were Googling ‘what is the EU?’ in the days after the vote, despite the fact that only 1,000 people did so.

A couple of weeks ago, the myth was given more oxygen – and apparent scientific confirmation – with the gleeful circulation of this graphic and article from The Economist, which purported to show extensive Bregret.

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The data here come from the British Electoral Survey (BES), which polled voters in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. BES’s own commentary on its findings do not support the idea of significant Bregret, however. BES notes that 6% of Leave voters regretted their vote, which rose to 8% among those least convinced, before the vote, that Leave would win. However, BES says, ‘the narrative of surprised and regretful Leave voters has some truth but only for a small minority of voters’. Leavers were, on average, far more convinced they would win than Remainers. Moreover, ‘the level of regret is consistent with what we saw at the [2015] general election.’

Other sources confirm that voters remain pretty firm in their choices. YouGov focus groups conducted in August found no change among Leavers or Remainers and, remarkably, no desire among Remainers for a second referendum, even from those who signed a petition calling for one (so clearly Brexiters are not alone in saying one thing and wanting another). YouGov polls through August and September also found the 52/48 split remaining consistent. John Curtice, the UK’s premier polling expert, concludes that claims of ‘buyers’ remorse’ are merely ‘wishful thinking’ by Remainers. “Very few minds have been changed – there are very few signs of regret.”

That the myth nonetheless circulates tells us a lot about both Remainers and Leavers. It shows that many Remainers still believe that the only reason that voters could have been so foolish as to vote to leave the EU is a lack of information, caused by lies or distortion, which are now being corrected as the predicted post-Brexit ‘disaster’ unfolds (even though, actually, it doesn’t). Leave voters could not, on this view, have voted for principled reasons, or on the basis of careful consideration; just a bit of additional information would be enough to change their position. That voters have actually stuck to their guns suggests quite the opposite.

The High Court Undermines Parliamentary Sovereignty

6 Nov

On 3 November, the High Court of England and Wales ruled that parliament, not the government, has the power to invoke Article 50 and trigger the UK’s departure from the European Union. This has generated glee from Remainers, and a bitter and sometimes ugly backlash from Brexiters. While the ruling is unlikely to lead to Brexit being thwarted, it is certainly a blow to democracy, one that illustrates the deep crisis of political representation that afflicts the UK.

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The ruling: undermining parliamentary sovereignty

Much Brexiter outrage focuses on the fact that three unelected judges are seen to be thwarting the democratic will of 17.4 million voters. Indeed, the Remainers who brought this case were not motivated by democratic impulses. They know that three-quarters of current Members of Parliament (MPs) are Remainers. By shifting control over Article 50 to parliament, their hope is that MPs will block Brexit, by overturning the referendum result of 23 June or, failing that, by kicking Brexit into the long grass.

The central question in the case was who has the right to repeal the legal rights and duties associated with EU membership that will necessarily follow from invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the UK’s constitution the conduct of foreign relations, particularly the (un)making of treaties, is a matter for the ‘Crown’, whose ‘prerogative’ is exercised by the executive branch; hence, the government argued that it had the right to invoke Article 50. Remainers argued that the EU treaties are special because EU laws enacted under those treaties directly affect the rights and obligations of British citizens. Since the civil wars of the seventeenth century, only parliament has had the constitutional authority to repeal laws or make new law. Invoking Article 50 would lead to withdrawal from the EU and this will effectively repeal a wide range of laws giving British citizens various rights and obligations. Therefore, the Remainers argued, only the (the overwhelmingly Remainer) parliament has the constitutional authority to set that process in motion.

The judges sided with parliament – which may appear to be a victory for democracy. But considered in its political context, the judges’ legal argument actually subverts the democratic content of parliamentary sovereignty.

To begin with, what Remainers are ultimately in favour of is not the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty over the powers of the executive but remaining within the EU, and remaining within the EU necessitates parliament relinquishing a considerable part of its power to make law to the executive. The European Communities Act 1972 automatically enacts EU law as UK law, without requiring parliament to pass any further statutes each time EU law changes. UK ministers contribute to making EU law through their activity in the European institutions. The power that ministers are exercising when they make those EU laws is nothing other than the Crown’s prerogative to conduct international relations. The result is that Remainers who loudly claim to be upholding the sovereignty of parliament against Theresa May’s reliance on the prerogative are the same people who want parliament to continue to surrender a significant part of its law-making powers to the Crown in the form of EU law-making.

If the prime minister did use prerogative powers to implement Article 50, this would not involve the Crown taking powers away from parliament. Parliament asked the British people in the referendum whether we wanted to retain the rights associated with EU membership, and a majority voted not to. If the government invokes Article 50, it would simply be implementing a democratic decision called for by parliament itself. Moreover the government has pledged to maintain all of the legal rights and duties in domestic law that arise from EU law, allowing parliament to retain, repeal or amend them after Brexit.

Parliamentary sovereignty is threatened far more by the legal ruling than it is by Theresa May. The judges’ insistence that parliament’s sovereignty requires parliament to make the decision on Article 50 pretends that the decision has not already been made by the people that parliament is supposed to represent. The judges’ ruling therefore opposes parliamentary sovereignty to popular sovereignty. The political authority of parliament ultimately derives solely from the extent to which it represents the people. By encouraging and empowering our political representatives to set themselves against the majority decision, the ruling has the effect of undermining the true sovereignty of parliament in the name of upholding it.

The crisis of representation

The ruling underscores the deep crisis of political representation in Britain. Theresa May’s reluctance to hand the authority over Article 50 to parliament is not simply because she thinks ‘revealing our hand’ is a bad negotiating tactic. It is because she cannot trust the predominantly Remainer MPs to accept the referendum result, and can foresee disaster should they refuse to do so. A large majority of the public backed May on this, suggesting that they, too, do not trust MPs to represent them. The same sentiment is conveyed by the shrill Leaver reaction to the court’s judgement.

This is not a ‘constitutional crisis’, as some are saying; it is a crisis of political representation, expressing the disconnection of the political elite from the electorate. Parliament has been exposed as highly unrepresentative: 74% of them – and every political party bar UKIP and the Ulster Unionist parties – backed Remain, versus just 48% of the voters. Many MPs have openly expressed a desire to frustrate the outcome. This creates a situation where it is the executive branch that more accurately represents popular sentiment by pledging that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

This is hugely problematic precisely because, as TCM has repeatedly argued, open debate and participatory democratic processes are now vital to determine what Brexit actually means in practice. The majority of people favoured leaving the EU, thereby authorising the government to change the law accordingly, including by repealing rights associated with EU membership. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Brexit was never defined during the campaign; no one can seriously argue Leave voters endorsed any particular option.

From the democratic point of view, it would be good to have as wide a political debate on this question as possible. The Brexit negotiations are not a matter for secret diplomacy, still less are they a poker game. The terms of Britain’s departure concerns us all. If Brexit is going to restore representative democracy, and strengthen parliamentary sovereignty, then the process should begin with collective political debate on defining what Brexit means. This involves representing the interests of both Leavers and Remainers. The referendum produced a clear result, but 16 million people still voted to Remain. They must accept that they lost on the fundamental question of EU membership, but are fully entitled to have their concerns and interests reflected in discussions on the nature of Britain’s departure.

However, the crisis of representation is such that, although parliament should be making decisions on the form of Brexit, it is unrepresentative with respect to Brexit itself, and therefore ought not to be given a veto over Britain’s departure from the EU – which is what giving MPs a final say over Article 50 does.

The real threat to parliamentary sovereignty arises from legislators’ continuing willingness to hold Brexit hostage, which is only encouraged by the High Court’s judgement. If MPs really respected the true basis of parliamentary sovereignty – the will of the electorate – they would stop blackmailing the electorate. They would unambiguously commit themselves to respecting the referendum result and leave invoking Article 50 to the executive. They would confine themselves to debating how best to implement the judgement of those who give them their authority. As long as they refuse to do this, too many electors will not trust them to be involved and the government can correctly stake a greater claim to true representativeness and to the political authority to keep the negotiations secretive.

Will the judgement foil Brexit?

Despite Leaver anxiety, the simmering mutual antipathy between the Leave majority in the electorate and the Remain majority in parliament will probably keep the UK on course to leave the EU. Work to model the EU referendum results at constituency level shows that 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies probably voted Leave, and 270 definitely did, while only 152 constituencies probably voted Remain, while only 76 definitely did so. If MPs defy the referendum result, they would face an enormous backlash and many could lose their seats.

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Theresa May understands this – which is why she has doubled down on Brexit, reiterating her intention to invoke Article 50 by March. Many Remainer MPs too are hearing the electoral message, and now say that parliament’s role is to scrutinise the government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain pursues an approach that protects British interests – from their perspective, staying in the single market. Following the ruling the Labour Party leadership has reiterated that Labour will not block Article 50, but will just ‘fight for a Brexit that works for Britain’. True, some MPs are still clinging to the idea of a second referendum on the final deal, but for reasons we have outlined previously, that is both politically unacceptable and impractical, making it very unlikely to fly in the Commons. The betrayal of the referendum result is therefore technically enabled by the High Court’s judgement, but remains politically unlikely.

If it does happen, the consequences will be unpredictable. One possibility is that Leave voters will rebel against their turncoat MPs, forcing their deselection or defecting to other parties – possibly reviving the disintegrating shambles that is now UKIP. While this revival would be a regrettable result of Remainer intransigence, it would at least have the positive outcome of disciplining the people’s representatives, showing them that they cannot continually defy the voters’ will. That might actually strengthen representative democracy. However, another possibility is that parliament’s frustration of the referendum result deepens popular cynicism towards the electoral system and the elitist Remainer parties populating it. The electorate will then increasingly look for solutions that attack and circumvent this system, making them prey to extremist populist appeals.

Although Remain MPs appear to be seeing sense, the possibility that parliament might frustrate the majority decision in the referendum is still a greater threat to democracy than giving the executive wide discretion to interpret the result, undesirable as that is.

The Supreme Court may yet dig parliament out of the mess it has got itself into by finding a way to reverse the High Court ruling when the government appeals in December, though it would be unwise to set too much store by the judges’ democratic instincts. The highly personalised attacks on the High Court judges in the Brexit-supporting media are no doubt intended to intimidate the Supreme Court. If the court does not overturn the ruling, a general election may be the only solution. Whatever the final result of the legal proceedings, parliament is at a crossroads. MPs can choose to undermine democracy further by continuing to delay or frustrate the implementation of the majority’s decision. Or they can participate in the renewal of democracy by giving up their claim to have a right to do so.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Referendum Redux?

2 Nov

A favoured Remainer strategy in the weeks and months since the Brexit vote has been to suggest essentially re-running the referendum, on the grounds that people were ‘lied to’. With the Tory government holding firm, the grounds are now shifting to disputes over the form and nature of Brexit. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is the latest to suggest that, as the nature of the Brexit deal clarifies, people will have new information about weighing up the pros and cons, and should be allowed to vote again.

Ironically, given that Brexiteers are usually the ones accused of ignorance, those pushing this idea do not seem to understand how the Article 50 process works. As we have explained previously, Article 50 was designed to make it hard for states to leave the EU, precisely to deter them from doing so, by creating a ticking time-bomb. A departing member-state must first formally tell the European Council it wishes to leave. This triggers a two-year period of negotiations with the Council on a ‘withdrawal agreement’. EU Treaties cease to apply to the departing member-state either two years after this agreement or, if no agreement is reached, two years after the initial notification.

This makes it incredibly risky even to contemplate a second referendum once Article 50 has been invoked. Leaving the EU is, as Blair himself admits, ‘complex’. It will be challenging to negotiate an agreement by the two-year deadline and, with every passing day, the Council’s leverage over Britain increases as the risk of simply dropping out of the EU without any agreement increases. What Blair and others are then proposing is that, when the agreement is finally reached – towards the end of the two-year period – we then have another vote on that agreement, whether in parliament, or in a second referendum. But what happens if the agreement is rejected? We cannot return to negotiations unless the Council agrees to prolong them beyond two years – and it is unclear why they would do so. Nor do we simply return to the status quo ante. At the two-year deadline, the EU Treaties would simply no longer apply to Britain: we would no longer be an EU member.

So the vote would not be a choice between the agreement reached and continued EU membership. It would be between the agreement struck and crashing out of the EU with nothing more than World Trade Organisation rules to govern Britain’s future relations with the Union. This is no choice at all. Indeed, the sheer unattractiveness of the latter option would probably result in an overwhelming, albeit begrudging, endorsement of the former.

Another option, Blair seems to think, is for a vote when the government’s negotiating position is finalised, prior to negotiations. However, this initial position cannot guarantee what Britain will actually get after two years of negotiations. The people would thus be asked again to vote on something whose exact outcome is uncertain – yet this is supposedly what invalidates the first referendum. Furthermore, what would happen if the people rejected the government’s position? Blair’s hope is that we would just forget the whole idea of leaving. But this leaves no space for voters to express a third view: that Britain should still leave the EU, but the government’s proposals are unsatisfactory. This would be another Hobson’s choice for Leave supporters: to defend their basic preference they would be forced to endorse a programme they dislike; or, if they think the programme is so awful, they would have to betray their initial position. Indeed, this is precisely the hope of Blair and his ilk. Clearly this would simply incentivise ‘spoilers’ to promote a bad negotiating position that will induce voters to opt to remain.

All this exposes the real limitations of referenda as an instrument of democratic governance. As Remainers are wont to note, referenda offer a simple yes/ no choice. They do not allow for nuance or qualifications. They are useful at times as a consultative mechanism, to obtain the public’s basic preferences on fundamental and/or constitutional matters that parliament feels it cannot decide. But all they do is convey that basic preference in a yes/ no form. The indispensability of representation consists in the fact that it will always be for political parties and leaders to interpret what that yes/ no response means in detailed practice.

Rejecting change is always easier to interpret, because it involves perpetuating the status quo. But embracing change is inherently open-ended. In the Scottish referendum, a ‘no’ vote meant keeping Scotland within the UK; a ‘yes’ vote meant ‘independence’ – which could mean just about anything. It was down to the Scottish National Party to define what ‘independence’ actually meant in practice. Ditto, Brexit. The trouble, as we have pointed out, is that the miserable Leave campaign failed to articulate any clear vision; hence, it fell to the government to define what Brexit meant in practice. Many people may dislike this – but it is unavoidable. Someone has to interpret what ‘yes’ means.

Clearly, a referendum is not a helpful way for people to express their views on this interpretation, because it does not allow people to disagree with the government’s interpretation without being forced to embrace an alternative that they also disagree with. This offers electors no real choice at all.

Yet, the way the government is going about interpreting Brexit is also unacceptable. Following a massive exercise in popular participation, the political process has again contracted to narrow elite manoeuvring: Theresa May consulting the leaders of the devolved regions; ministers being lobbied by elite business organisations; and intra-governmental squabbles and slap-downs, revealed by occasional leaks. This allows Brexit to be interpreted around narrow, elite interests, and whatever the deeply unpleasant Tory Party thinks will maximise its electoral advantage – including vile and idiotic nativist sloganeering designed merely to appeal to the anti-immigration segment of the Leave vote and undermine both Labour and UKIP.

What is missing is for all voters’ detailed views and aspirations to be represented in a deliberative process that can meaningfully shape the outcome. That cannot happen if government is closed or secretive, nor if people are merely offered a straight yes/no vote after a secretive process. What is required is for parliamentarians and political parties to engage in grassroots discussions with as many individuals and groups as possible, and develop the results into a broad programme for Brexit and Britain’s future. If broad consensus is impossible, parties should develop competing platforms and either debate them in parliament (as 73% of people are demanding) or put them to the people to decide through a general election. That is how representative democracy is supposed to work.

The crisis of representative democracy that makes such a basic process unlikely to happen, however, is reflected in the apparent inability of parliament to perform a constructive, deliberative role. The government’s reluctance to consult parliament on its negotiating position is not merely because it fears a Conservative split. It is also because it knows full well that 75% of MPs are Remainers and many would like to spoil Brexit. The case currently before the Supreme Court, which will determine whether parliament or the executive has the right to invoke Article 50 (incidentally, the public supports the PM), is not a struggle to shape the terms of Brexit, but a rear-guard attempt to empower parliament to stop it happening. In that sense, by refusing fundamentally to accept the referendum outcome, Remainers are denying a role for themselves – and everyone else – in shaping what Brexit really means.

Lee Jones

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

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